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Sick stations? Two firefighters test positive for 'toxic mold'

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of January 8, 2015)

For more than a decade, Indian River County Fire Rescue workers have complained about leaky roofs, pipes and air-conditioner lines, clogged drains and other forms of water seepage at four fire stations, where they say damp, moldy conditions have spawned air-quality concerns.

Some firefighters and paramedics who’ve been assigned to those stations – Nos. 1 (Old Dixie), 2 (82nd Avenue), 10 (Fellsmere) and 11 (Orchid) – also have reported mold-related health issues, such as severe sinus infections, chest congestion, respiratory irritation, headaches, sore throats and sneezing.

Two firefighters recently tested positive for “toxic mold exposure,” according to John O’Connor, president of the local chapter of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). And he expects more.

O’Connor said the results of a third worker’s test are pending, and at least 10 more will be tested.

“The results of the first two tests were so overwhelming that we decided to send 10 more of our members for testing,” O’Connor said. “If all 12 come back positive, we’ll go to the county and request that everyone who has been exposed to these conditions be tested – and that the county pay for the testing and the treatment, especially since this is an ongoing issue.

“Right now, the county isn’t paying for anything,” he added. “The union is paying for these initial tests, which cost about $1,300 per person, but we’ve already had one of our members file a workers’ compensation claim. So I think we’ve got the county’s attention.”

County Administrator Joe Baird said he was aware of the testing, but he doesn’t believe the tests will show any direct link to the fire stations. He said two stations already have been inspected for mold by an outside contractor, and two others will be.

Based on the reports of the stations inspected thus far, Baird said, “We didn’t think it was that bad. You’ve got to remember: There’s more mold outdoors than inside these stations. Even if they come back with some positive tests, how do we know the mold causing the problems came from the work environment?”

Baird said it was ridiculous to think the county would put costs above the health of its employees, particularly its Fire Rescue workers, who provide such a vital service to the community.

“Obviously, we care about the firefighters and the condition of our stations,” Baird said. “Look at how many stations we’ve rebuilt since the hurricanes, and that was during a recession. And we’re still making renovations.

“We don’t want to expose our firefighters to any unnecessary dangers,” he added. “If there’s a health hazard, we want to correct it.”

Five fire stations have been rebuilt since the 2004 hurricanes swept through the Treasure Coast – No. 2 (Riverside), No. 3 (Airport), No. 4 (Oslo), No. 5 (Winter Beach) and No. 9 (Roseland) – at a cost of $14 million. The county spent another $2 million to add a new station, No. 12, at the north end of Gifford.

In addition, the county has spent nearly $1 million more on renovations to stations No. 6 (Moorings), No. 8 (Sebastian), No. 10 (Fellsmere) and No. 11 (Orchid), which opened in 2000 but required roof repairs.

Station No. 1 on Old Dixie Highway in Vero Beach also is scheduled to undergo a $1 million facelift.

“We had planned to do Station No. 1 sooner, but we had to hold off because of funding,” County Budget Director Jason Brown said. “Now, we’re set with the design work and funding, and it’ll undergo a heavy renovation.”

Brown said the county has spent about $16 million in rebuilds and renovations since the hurricanes, so it’s unfair for the union to “paint a picture that we’re willing to put our firefighters in an unsafe or unhealthy work environment.”

O’Connor raised the mold and air quality issues at the Dec. 16 County Commission meeting, where he challenged the findings of an inspection performed on Station No. 1. He said “swab tests” necessary to confirm the presence and extent of mold in the building weren’t done, and he urged the board to hire a state-licensed mold mitigation contractor to evaluate all the stations.

“I want to make sure we’re not back here in three years revisiting this,” O’Connor said, adding, “I have 220-some members whom I represent, and I want to make sure their health and safety is a No. 1 priority.”

Fire Chief John King defended the report, saying, “We do not have an issue at that station ... Everything was well within what’s acceptable.”

O’Connor and the union aren’t so sure. In fact, they offered to have the stations inspected for mold and air quality last year – at the union’s expense – only to be denied by the county administration, which said such inspections can be authorized only by the county.

“The county wouldn’t let us do it,” O’Connor said. “Now that one of our members has filed a workers’ comp claim and his attorney has filed a petition to have the building inspected, the county is trying to cooperate with us.”

Privacy laws prevent the county and union from identifying the firefighter who filed the claim, except to say he worked at the Fellsmere station.

The test samples are being collected by Dr. Deepti Sadhwani, a Wabasso-based physician, then sent to the Environmental Health Assessment Program Laboratories in Georgia. The testing can take up to a month before results are available.

O’Connor said he’s not sure how the county would respond to a series of positive test results.

“They’ve been in a denial all along,” O’Connor said. “The buildings in question have been neglected for years, but they’re not even acknowledging that the problem exists. Unfortunately, the only vehicle we have to remove our members from the hazard is workers’ comp claims.”

Baird said it was “amazing” that this issue has surfaced at this time, adding that he believes the complaints were connected to the stalled labor negotiations between the county and its firefigthers.

“In all the months of bargaining, the condition of the stations never came up,” Baird said. “It wasn’t an issue until the negotiations reached an impasse. The problem is, there’s only so much money.

“Last year, we had a 16 percent increase in the tax bill for the Emergency Services District,” he added. “We can’t keep doing that. If we spend more money on stations, that leaves less money for other things in the district.

“And I’ll be very direct: That includes raises.”